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'I felt a long way from here' - Marshall emerges from wilderness to sparkle against the Boks

The Ulster centre grasped his opportunity on Saturday during Ireland’s historic win in Cape Town.

Marshall was one of the standout performers over the weekend.
Marshall was one of the standout performers over the weekend.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Rory Keane reports from Johannesburg 

IT WAS QUITE the comeback for Luke Marshall against the Springboks last Saturday.

Making his first start in an Ireland shirt in over two years, the Ulster centre produced a superb defensive display at inside centre punctuated with some classy contributions with ball-in-hand.

A spate of concussions, a niggling knee injury, a suspension and the form of Robbie Henshaw as well as his provincial team-mate Jared Payne had pushed Marshall onto the periphery of Test selection during a frustrating 24 months.

Certainly, there were times when Marshall questioned if he would ever earn a Test call-up again.

“Yeah, definitely last year,” said the 25-year-old.

“I felt a long way from here, I felt I was a long way probably from the Ulster team and to be honest at the start of the season I was thinking about moving on elsewhere. It’s good to be here definitely, it’s been a good season.

Injuries may have opened the door for the Ballymoney man on this tour, but Marshall has grabbed the opportunity with both hands.

He was in the thick of it from the first whistle to the frantic final moments as the Boks chased a late match-winning try at Newlands.

With JP Pietersen bundled into touch and the final whistle blown, the victory was Ireland’s and a what a win it was.

“It was great, not too many people gave us a chance with the injury list we had and the experienced players we were missing.

Andy Farrell Andy Farrell's influence is already rubbing off on Ireland's defensive efforts. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“We still had a lot of belief, preparation was very good and Andy Farrell was great coming in and not changing too much about the structure, but just the mentality that he gave us.

“You could see that working today, even down to 14 and 13 men at times we were still very aggressive in our defence and it showed in the end.”

It’s one thing to face the Boks a man down for an hour on their home turf, how Ireland managed to keep them at bay when Henshaw was sent to the bin in the 32nd minute defies all sporting logic.

The fact that Marshall and co. then marched up the field and set the platform for Paddy Jackson to knock over a drop goal just before that bellowing half-time hooter was all the more remarkable.

“It just shows how tight a group we are,” said the Ireland midfielder.

“A couple of decisions we couldn’t believe, we didn’t think that could happen but we needed to dig deep and come together as a team.

“They made a few mistakes that helped us as well, but we worked hard right to the end to get that result.”

Paddy Jackson celebrates after the match Paddy Jackson came of age at Newlands with a commanding performance. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Jackson came of age in Cape Town and seemed to relish the responsibility of the No 10 shirt. For Ireland fans, it was a welcome sight. For Marshall, it was no surprise; Jackson has been delivering performance like that week in, week out for Ulster all season:

“We all had full confidence in him. Rory spoke about it during the week, Paddy’s season for Ulster’s been exceptional.

“It’s his leadership that’s grown. Rory’s our captain at Ulster, but Paddy has really stepped in to take almost a vice-captain’s role, he dictates a lot in training. We all knew he could step up to the No 10 jersey at this level and run the game and he showed that.

“His two drop-goals, I know only one went over, but they were exceptional so they were. To pick the time to do that, when were under the pump was great.”

Grace under pressure, in the most trying of circumstances.

“We just came together and knew we could get through it,” added Marshall.

“We just sort of embraced the challenge, the experienced players stepped up. Rory talked to us, Jamie was incredible at No 8, Jared at full-back is a really calming influence and his kicking was exceptional.

“Those guys stepped up and calmed us younger guys down a bit to see it through. Conor was massive too, controlling things, there’s a lot of leaders in the team and they definitely stepped up.”

Analysis: Jared Payne’s sumptuous offloads shine in Ireland’s historic win

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